There is no overstating the importance of volunteer firefighters and EMTs in Chautauqua County.
When there is a fire in Frewsburg, it is a group of volunteers who responds. When there is a car accident in Sherman, members of the all-volunteer Stanley Hose Company are the ones responding. When a health emergency strikes an elderly person in Cassadaga, it's volunteer EMTs who are first on the scene. The county's mutual aid system also ensures the departments help each other when needed. A fire in Pomfret on Monday drew firefighters from as far south as Cassadaga.
That safety net is disappearing right before our eyes. As older volunteers step away, fewer new people are joining.
It's not as if area officials aren't trying to recruit new volunteer firefighters. Many of our area departments have junior firefighter programs while, at the same time, are looking for able-bodied retirees who want to join. The state has made tuition programs available in which students can get help with college tuition in exchange for a five-year commitment to the student's local fire department. For more information on those programs, visit fireinyou.org or www.chautcofire.org.
The centerpiece of recruiting efforts is the annual RecruitNY weekend. Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter or EMT can visit one of several fire departments hosting open houses this weekend - including Bemus Point, Celoron, Sinclairville, Cassadaga, Cherry Creek, Dewittville, East Dunkirk, Falconer, Forestville, Fredonia, Gerry, Lakewood, Mayville, Sheridan, Silver Creek, the Stanley Hose Co. in Sherman, Stockton, Sunset Bay and Westfield - to see demonstrations, meet their community's volunteers and get more information about joining a department. There are dozens of roles to be filled in each department, from interior firefighters and EMTs to ancillary support roles suitable for nearly anyone.
The declining numbers of volunteer firefighters is an ominous omen for an indispensable part of the county's public safety infrastructure. The state can help make easier to recruit new people by relaxing some of the training requirements that make it difficult for new recruits to actually begin helping, particularly for those who want to be EMTs.
Until that happens, however, help must come from within.
Are you ready to answer the call?